Josh Norman, the Carolina Panthers’ very good cornerback, waits his turn late Saturday afternoon at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Norman, who wears No. 24, will drive the 24 car. That’s Jeff Gordon’s number.
The silver 24 Norman will drive is part of the NASCAR Racing Experience, in which people pay to drive fast cars on one of the sport’s best tracks. Norman is part of a salute to Gordon, whom he has never met. It’s a 24 thing. He’s also at the track because he wants to drive fast.
Norman’s 24 will be smaller than Gordon’s. But it’s far from a toy. The car weighs about 3,400 pounds and has a top speed of 150 to 160 mph.
Norman, 27, has never attended a race. He looks at the track, impressed by its grandeur. What do you envision?
“I envision 170 (mph),” he says.
Norman’s helmet, black with a Panthers’ blue stripe down the middle, is inscribed with As Real As It Gets. His firesuit is blue and white. Norman says he wants to keep both and wear them on the first day of training camp in Spartanburg.
I tell Norman he’ll be criticized for driving a race car.
“What?” he asks, opening the hands that will soon grip the steering wheel. “What?”
Some people believe that during the off-season athletes should be preserved behind thick glass and play video games and watch TV, I tell him. And if they’re extra, extra safe, they can perhaps shoot pool or play golf.
“What do they do?” Norman asks of the critics. “Do they go outside? Do they play basketball? We do the same thing.”
Besides, what’s the big deal about driving? So far this offseason Norman has: skydivedsurfed off the Florida coast; snowboarded in the Colorado mountains; ridden the horses he owns in South Carolina and Georgia. He did not go to New South Wales and play Australian Rules Football. He did not fight any bulls.
Do you have any other adventures planned before training camp?
“Sharks,” Norman says.
He laughs when he says it.
He’ll drive six laps and push the pedal to the floor unless he encounters slower traffic. “Some of them are going like 100 mph,” he says later. “That’s not racing.”
Norman’s top speed is 152.24 mph.
Drivers are supposed to pass only on the backstretch. Norman lurks through turn 2 and then its high and goodbye. He likes the top side of the track and three times moves up and blows past other drivers.
“He looks like he might be a natural,” says Michael Owens of the Racing Experience.
When Norman, who away from the track drives a Dodge Charger Hellcat, gets out of the car he yells, “Whoooo!”
“That was wild and wicked,” he says.
We walk to the Winner’s Circle. This will be the first time this season the driver of the 24 has appeared there.
Norman talks about G-force and speed and power and banked turns. He invokes Ricky Bobby, Will Ferrell’s character from “Talladega Nights.” He says racing is up there with skydiving.
Because of the rain we leave the Winner’s Circle and head into the infield media center. With some prompting, but not too much, we lead Norman to the lectern where the race winner speaks after his victory.
Norman leans on the lectern and gets into character.
He says that when he was on the track his crew chief called him on the car radio.
Says Norman: “It was, ‘Bobby, you’re killing it.’
“Yeah, I know.”
Norman adds: “I just want to thank the fans for their support.”
There are many ways to live a life. You can stay in, you can go out, you can stay in and criticize those that go out.
Norman says his is to “Experience it and enjoy it and give back” through his Starz24 Foundation.
You don’t stay home and watch a lot of TV, do you?
“I can’t watch TV and eat popcorn and chips and put my feet up on the chair,” Norman says.
He’d prefer to put one of them on the accelerator and push it to the floor.